Welcome, friends, to The House Next Door’s recap of the first episode of Mad Men’s second season, “For Those Who Think Young.” It’s been a huge thrill to see the show come out of nowhere to become the buzz program of the past year (as well as a multi-Emmy nominee), but obviously not as big a thrill for the fans as for the cast and the show’s creator, Matthew Weiner, who doesn’t waste any time on recaps or self-congratulation, instead throwing viewers right into the deep end to the strains of Chubby Checker’s “Let’s Twist Again” (”...like we did last summer”). In that spirit, let’s get right down to business.
I don’t think the length of the gap since Season One is ever specified in dialogue, but the broadcast date of Jackie Kennedy’s famous TV tour of the White House (February 14, 1962) proves that about 15 months have passed since Betty blew off Don for Thanksgiving at the end of “The Wheel.” I may be one of the few serious fans who never asked the question “Why the fuck doesn’t Don have a lock on his office?” during Season One, and I got a huge laugh out of the scene up top in which one is installed. Just as overdue is Don’s visit to the doctor, who, in a sign of the times, prescribes him the barbiturate Phenobarbital as an anti-anxiety medication. (Though still prescribed as an anti-seizure medication in other countries, it’s now primarily used on dogs in the United States, though it remains popular as a suicide drug—it’s what Abbie Hoffman O.D.’d on).
Although we’re not told how Don and Betty reconciled after “The Wheel”, the presence of a housekeeper at the Draper residence (and the scene of Betty at riding lessons, almost but not quite as much of a bored-housewife cliché as therapy—trust me, I spent my early years in a wealthy suburb in the early ’70s) suggests that Don dealt with the situation in large part by opening his checkbook. He wasn’t necessarily just being lazy: It’s pretty evident throughout the episode that Don is distracted by some intense angst of his own. Unsurprisingly, his opaque personality and Jon Hamm’s sublime poker face makes it impossible to determine its exact nature, though at this point fans know well Don more than well enough for us to have plenty of fodder for speculation—speculation that’ll have to wait until after we cover the action at Sterling Cooper.
Considering his condition when we last saw Roger Sterling, it was pretty startling to see him carrying on as if nothing had happened to him, though I suspect he’s not as strong as he’s letting on—his banter with Joan implies that his sex life is now pretty vicarious and that, in a variation on the Breaking the Waves scenario, he’s getting his jollies from her descriptions of her misadventures. Joan herself now seems more intensely focused than ever on “winning” via the acquisition of a powerful husband, which may in part be the cause of her increased bitchiness at SC vis-a-vis the new copier—it’s possible she sees herself as being on a “farewell tour” and is letting the other gals in the steno pool get a last, vicious taste of her poison before she moves on to directing her ire at assorted housekeepers, babysitters, maids, doormen, etc. The arrival of Sterling Cooper’s first copier—arguably the payoff of a joke Weiner set up back in the pilot—gives her a golden opportunity to once again make things hard for poor Peggy Olsen.
On the Peggy tip, we soon learn that she vanished from the office for a couple of months after her kid was born, and that her unexplained absence is still a hot discussion topic among the junior execs (surprisingly so, given that she must have been back about a year by now). Peggy and the gang spend most of the day waiting around for Don to show up for a catered meeting; their long lunch (and mediocre pitches afterward) gives us a prolonged glimpse at the laziness and inertia in the SC ranks that Don is always bitching about, and which is one of the reasons why Weiner keeps reminding us in interviews that, despite the immense power of Bert Cooper and the wealth of Roger Sterling, Sterling Cooper remains a C-list agency.
SC’s status in the ad world is often explained by Weiner yet seldom reflected on the show. Duck Phillips represents an obvious attempt to do something about it. Last season, you may recall, Duck urged SC to enter big-money fields in which it had no clients—airlines, pharmaceuticals, etc. This year, Duck—clearly being set up as Don’s antagonist for the season (so what if Don brought him on board?)—is determined to get ahead of the baby boom (the oldest boomers are just turning 16 in 1962) by bringing younger talent into the agency. Other than Pete, Duck’s the only guy at SC with so much as an inkling of how the baby boom will change consumerism. Roger cheerfully goes along with Duck, suggesting that he hopes to play Don and Duck off each other from the outside; naturally, Duck is actually playing Roger and Don against each other, but Roger’s just too conceited to pick up on it. In classic Roger style, he goes to Don saying that Bert Cooper, not Duck, is interested in hiring younger folks. Don (who, unlike Roger and Duck, has never been afraid to tell clients what they don’t want to hear) sees right through it and has Roger deliver a reply to Duck. When the eagerly-sought newbies, one of Duck’s beloved writer-artist teams, present themselves for an interview, they’re eager to keep the visit from hitting the ad-world rumor mill, apparently for fear of having their reputation tarnished as a result of dealing with SC.
Betty’s post-Bryn Mawr, pre-marriage stint in the modeling world contributed to making her simultaneously worldly and naïve, qualities that converged with awkward results when she and Don encounter Juanita, her former roommate, at the restaurant where Don takes Betty for Valentine’s Day. Betty’s the only one oblivious to Juanita’s obvious status as an escort, or “party girl” as Don coyly puts it. As Francine’s evocation of Butterfield 8 makes clear, this was one of those periodic times in which pop culture contrives to make the high-end sex trade seem like a glamorous way for bored women to fill their time (Luis Buñuel’s Belle de Jour was still five years away). Combine that fantasy with the overheated/underexercised libido of which Betty spoke last season, and I dare say you’re looking at a recipe for disaster. Her flirtation with the idea of trading sex for car help is the start of something that’s sure to turn ugly.
Weiner and co. cleverly use the famous Jackie Kennedy telecast as the jumping-off point for a montage that brings us up to date on a few more of our favorites: Paul ain’t the only one with a new beard, and Salvatore’s seems just as spunky as Lois but a lot better looking. We get a glimpse of Joan with her doctor boyfriend (in a vignette which lends fuel to my suspicion that she doesn’t really enjoy sex at all), while Pete, somewhat unsurprisingly, spends the night on the couch watching a science fiction movie. (His family ain’t as rich as they used to be, but surely he could do better by Trudy than a box of chocolates from Schrafft’s, the 1962 equivalent of one purchased at Duane Reade).
The source of Don’s quiet unease, as I said before, remains a mystery, but the onscreen evidence hints at intriguing possibilities. Although Dick Whitman succeeded in the business world on his own, he never got the education that the “real” Don Draper did. Last season, “our” Don often chafed when he was judged on his appearance; now, instead, after the bohemian type in the bar tells him he wouldn’t understand Frank O’Hara’s Meditations in an Emergency, rather than make a bitter wisecrack, he goes out and buys a copy. Don’s sudden interest in contemporary poetry and his takedown of the guys who continue their lewd banter after a woman enters the elevator suggest an unspoken question: After all these years of playing the role of “Don Draper,” has our protagonist realized he doesn’t particularly like his character and resolved on a course of self-improvement? And if so, will it distract him enough to make him vulnerable to the machinations of Duck Phillips? All we can do, is stay tuned.
Miscellaneous notes: The work of Frank O’Hara and the rest of the New York School poets is one of my literary blind spots, so I did a little reading up on O’Hara in an attempt to decode the significance of the poem used in tonight’s episode. The Harvard roommate of Edward Gorey, O’Hara, like Ayn Rand, is someone the Mad Men characters might conceivably cross paths with: O’Hara’s day job was as a curator at MoMA, which is about a 10 minute walk from the SC offices. Of course, if O’Hara or Rand actually showed up on Mad Men, it could be send the show careening down a slippery slope toward becoming The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, a fate I’m sure Weiner wants to avoid. (Here’s a question for those who know more about the publishing world (or the publishing world in 1962) than I: If the standard info for Meditations in an Emergency is “Grove Press; 1957, 1967”, does that mean the paperback release trailed the hardcover by a decade (meaning the paperbacks we see in the episode are anachronisms), or does it mean the book went out of print at some point prior to 1967 and was reissued then? Inquiring minds want to know.)
Secondly, I want to put in a very strong endorsement for the Blu-ray edition of Mad Men’s first season, which I devoured in about five days before sitting down to watch the season two premiere. The war between Cablevision and Time Warner Cable kept most New Yorkers from being able to see the first season in HD when it was broadcast, and the difference is simply stunning. It ain’t just the rich colors and the level of visual detail: The clarity of the sound mix allowed me to catch lines of dialogue (sometimes entire brief speeches) in almost every episode which were inaudible the first time around. I’d seen every Season One episode at least three times before sitting down with the Blu-ray discs, via AMC screeners that occasionally had unfinished visual effects (Don and Rachel’s rooftop kiss in “Marriage of Figaro” took place in front of a green screen), it was great to see the episodes in finished form. The downside was that doing so revealed a number of embarrassing contradictions between the final product and my S1 recaps, largely because I assumed all the music on the AMC screeners had been cleared; the Decemberists’ “The Infanta,” for example, doesn’t end “Shoot,” as I said in my column about the episode, nor does Hoyt Axton’s “Greenback Dollar” conclude “The Hobo Code.” While I hope to be able to watch the show in advance this season as well, in cases where a music choice strikes me as notable enough to mention, I plan to check the screener against a digital video recording of the broadcast version before I post my recap in order to prevent this sort of thing from happening again.
Oh, and the person to whom Don mailed his copy of the O’Hara book? $5 says it’s Rachel Mencken.
Andrew Johnston is the television critic for Time Out New York.